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Moscow’s draft of a treaty has not been accepted by Sukhum, by Arda Inal-ipa

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Arda Inal-Ipa
Deputy Director at Center for Humanitarian Programs, Sukhum

Nezavisimaya Gazeta -- In the new redaction of the document on the Russo-Abkhazian alliance the interests of Abkhazia are not protected.

In connection with the coming to light of Russia’s draft-treaty for an ‘Alliance and Integration’ between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Abkhazia there has developed in Abkhazia a non-trivial situation that has caused conflicting feelings in society. The very text of the treaty has been perceived negatively to varying degrees by the overwhelming majority of citizens of Abkhazia – some have categorically rejected the entire document, some have criticised separate articles, but the general and main concerns have been over the preservation of the national sovereignty of Abkhazia and over good relations with Russia. 

Since the Russian side has unequivocally expressed interest in signing the new treaty, many in Abkhazia have held that refusal will be perceived as ingratitude, and that thus, out of a sense of obligation towards the Russian Federation (for the recognition of Abkhazia's independence and for its comprehensive assistance), the proposed treaty will have to be signed. However, on the other hand, it was clear that the programme implicit in the treaty will inevitably lead to loss of independence, which would negate the very decision by Russia on recognition, for which indeed Abkhazia feels sincere gratitude. Besides, implementation of the agreement will create a picture that in many respects resembles Georgian propaganda about a puppet-government in Abkhazia and diktats from Russia etc., propaganda with which the Abkhazians have fought so long and hard.

In some Russian publications the stormy discussion in Abkhazia over the Russian draft-treaty for alliance and integration is already being described as scandalous. Unfortunately, the Abkhazian critics of this document very soon began to find themselves being the labelled Russophobes. In actual fact, there is not a drop of anti-Russian sentiment in their apprehension, since the task of preserving the sovereignty of the Abkhazian state lies on an entirely different plane, and the concerns expressed are the result of a reverential attitude to Abkhazian statehood, which, from the Abkhazian point of view indeed, not only does not contradict Russian interests but is of great importance for the Russian Federation in its regional foreign-policy context and in the context of its strong ties with the North Caucasus.

Undue haste is out of place 

And, in any case, what is the urgent need to sign (before the end of the year) a new agreement on integration? Supporters of the agreement refer to the deteriorating situation around the Russian Federation and the new threats arising from changes in the geopolitical situation. But how, for example, can unification with parts of the Abkhazian army, when it is experiencing great problems with modern equipment and the like, really help? How can such a step make the Russian army more militarily capable? 

Maybe we are talking about new threats against Abkhazia? Indeed, the dogged unwillingness of Georgia to sign an agreement on non-resumption of hostilities with Abkhazia does not neutralise the threat of an attempted revanche. However, even in this respect, it is difficult to justify the urgency of reformatting relations, as Russian military experts responsibly declare that modern Georgia is not preparing for offensive military action and that it does not have the technical capacity for this. Moreover, after the September summit of NATO in Wales, the prospect of Georgia joining the alliance has been moved to the back burner for an indefinite period.

Regarding the important regional player that is Turkey, facing Abkhazia on the Black Sea, it has been a member of NATO for longer than 60 years, and here too there is nothing new, unless we count aggravation of contradictions with the USA. Moreover, for many years neither NATO membership nor associate relations with the European Union (since 1963) have prevented Russia actively and successfully cooperating with this country. For Abkhazia this developing partnership is of great importance, because on the territory of Turkey is to be found a large Abkhazian diaspora, close contacts with which are extremely important.

As for guaranteeing Abkhazia’s security, this problem was largely resolved after Russian recognition of Abkhazia's independence, when a framework bilateral agreement on friendship and cooperation was signed, which was later supplemented by more than 80 agreements in various fields. On the territory of the Republic of Abkhazia military units of the Russian Federation were stationed in order to provide military assistance. According to the agreement between our countries on a united Russian military base, serving as a Russian object for its military and geopolitical presence in the Caucasus, the Abkhazian side has granted the Russian side free use for 49 years of real estate in the places of its deployment. Military camps, military units, a military airfield, and a naval port are located in several regions of Abkhazia. Military facilities of the Russian Federation are exempt from all fiscal payments. The accommodation of Russian bases in Abkhazia fully addresses issues related to security, "answers the interests of maintaining peace and stability in the region and serves the long-term strategic interests of both countries.”

The concerns of Abkhazia 

In order to appreciate the worries of the Abkhazians, it is enough to familiarise oneself with some articles of this treaty. In the area of defence, we have the creation of a united grouping of units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and the Armed Forces of the Republic of Abkhazia, the commander of which is designated to be the authorised organ of the Russian Federation. In the area of border-security, we have, in effect, the movement of the state-border of the Russian Federation to the frontier along the river Ingur. In internal affairs, we have the creation of a joint coordination centre for the organs of internal affairs, the mutual facilitation of procedures for the acquisition of citizenship, the creation of supranational organs of government, and much more.

There is no need to be a professional lawyer to see that the proposed forms of cooperation limit the sovereignty of Abkhazia not only in the spheres of defence and foreign policy, which is typical for most cases of a political protectorate, but also in domestic affairs, which signifies the confirmation of greater dependence. The plans, reflected in the treaty, for the gradual increase of salaries, raising pensions and other social guarantees, which are desperately needed by the residents of Abkhazia, are perceived in the country as measures introduced to offset the reduction in state-sovereignty. In the treary, the taking care of people is certainly envisaged but just in terms of their being Russian citizens permanently resident in Abkhazia and not as citizens of the Abkhazian State per se, for which during the Georgian-Abkhazian war thousands of young lives were expended.

Perhaps such an acute reaction to the proposals for deeper integration in the Russian space would not have arisen in Abkhazia, if the republic had been recognised by many countries and were a member of the UN and other international organisations. But, as things now stand, everything rests on the goodwill of Russia ...

There is no compromise-route, when the points of destination are different

It seems that Russia and Abkhazia have entered into a very important and difficult process of negotiation on a new treaty without any prior discussion of the starting-points and the objectives of the parties. Unfortunately, the Russian side has not voiced its vision of the desired level of integration of Abkhazia into the Russian space. Therefore, in order meaningfully to work on the received proposal, one must answer by oneself the question: what is the main idea behind the draft-treaty? It is necessary to recreate the picture desired by the Russian side, based on the articles of the draft, including those that cause fears among Abkhazian society. 

It might have been possible to call this task exciting, had not the issue cut Abkhazian society to the quick. Today the president of Abkhazia and parliamentarians are assuring the public that the initial draft can be turned into a document fully acceptable to the Abkhazian side by proposing newly edited wordings of some of the articles. However, our removal of some of the points will not mean that the aim of the authors of the original draft will have disappeared. It is impossible to find a compromise version of a route-map, if the points of destination are different. In such a situation, the proposed "road-map" cannot be acceptable to both parties, no matter how edited the phrases and how cut the most candid pieces of the articles of the treaty may be.

It is supremely unfortunate that a careful reading of all the clauses of the treaty, starting from defence and ending with the social guarantees, speaks of the fact that, in the view of the team of Russian authors, the continued existence of a state carrying the name of the "Republic of Abkhazia" is not necessary for Russia. Most likely the name of the republic can be preserved, but, in fact, as many Russian experts say, over time it will already be a Russian region. The idea of Abkhazia’s subordination runs through every article and through the very form of the exposition of the document, which is more like a directive with clear deadlines than an interstate agreement. It would appear that the respectful phrases on joint-management in different areas actually serve the unequivocal purpose of concealing the fact that the Russian side, by gradually creating supranational structures, is effectively taking upon itself complete control. Russia is a powerful and strong partner, and so Abkhazians can never be on an equal footing with joint-management. Laying the foundations of such mechanisms will inevitably threaten our fragile independence.

A project to create a "Russian World", which is not being spoken about openly by everyone but which is inspiring many Russian politicians and cultural figures who are active and ready to run risks, may conceivably lie at the basis of such a picture. If this idea has become inspirational with respect also to Abkhazia, then the inclusion of Abkhazia in this project will mean its destruction, insofar as Abkhazian society, despite the fact that the majority have command of the Russian language, remains a distinctive Caucasian society and hardly fits into such a conceived picture. 

The reasonable question arises: has the idea, which runs through the articles of the draft of the new treaty, of Russian lack of interest in preserving Abkhazia’s statehood been agreed with the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation, with the Security Council of the Russian Federation and with the supreme Kremlin leadership? 

It is difficult to say whether within the Russian political élite there is consensus as to in what sort of Abkhazia and in what relations with it Russia is interested. In all likelihood, serious engagement with this issue after 2008, when a response to the recognition of Kosovo was being prepared, did not happen, and then in 2014, when Ukraine began to heat up, already there was clearly no time for a discussion on Abkhazia. So there is every reason to believe that the authors of the Russian draft did not proceed from calibrated positions and precisely formulated Russian interests in the Southern Caucasus but rather from the understanding they already had of the situation at departmental level. Most likely the authors of the draft have not studied in depth the history of Abkhazia’s national liberation-movement or the particularities of Abkhazia’s socio-political life, and if their knowledge about Abkhazia is insufficient, they are likely to have relied on their experience of other regions. They have possibly fashioned the Abkhazian project to fit the Crimean template.

As a matter of principle, the Abkhazian view on mutual relations with Russia does not conform to any prospect of its being dissolved within the Russian space. The vital interests of Abkhazia lie in standing, with the help of Russia, on its feet, in developing state- and democratic institutions, in bringing to an end the subsidised stage of mutual relations, in becoming an independent economic and political ally of Russia, in coordinate its own policies with Russian interests, in being a reliable partner in the Southern Caucasus and entire Black Sea region, and in creating a basis for further international recognition of the Abkhazian state. 

Without negotiations it will be difficult

When people talk in Abkhazia about the value of the statehood achieved, it does not mean that we do not see and do not recognise our own serious errors. Some of them were inexcusable, including those touching the excesses in the notorious housing-problem, and they have to be understood, analysed and condemned. There were really a lot of omissions. On the other hand, a number of serious problems, unfortunately, could not be avoided in the initial stages of constructing a state that had lived through a war with all its devastating consequences, a blockade by the entire world, and a policy of non-recognition. But the fact of the matter is that many of these problems can be solved precisely through the strengthening of state- and democratic institutions, whereas the scheme proposed in the Russian draft envisages only a tightening of the existence of dependence on Russian subsidies, which will inevitably lead to a reduction of responsibilities before our population and the degradation of civil and political activity. 

To escape from the difficult situation with the treaty, in my opinion, it would be necessary to go back to original positions and hold full-valued, bilateral consultations on an analysis of existing treaties and agreements, and to define common future goals. We really need a serious and deep conversation about common interests in the Caucasus and in the wider regional context, during which the parties will have, as strategic partners, to articulate, and agree on, their own vision of the desired level and nature of the interaction between Abkhazia and Russia. Only then, by defining the goals, will it be possible to move towards improving and complementing existing interstate documents.

This article was published by Nezavisimaya Gazeta and is translated from Russian.

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